My grandma lived hundreds of miles away. The last time I saw her she gave me a big round clock that had a cotton tail and furry rabbit ears. I remember her cool papery cheek brushing mine as she bent stiffly to kiss me good-bye before I climbed in our red VW bus to leave her house. I loved winding the clock with the big silver key on its back, the loud ticking and its comical bunny face. I was six. This was my very first clock. I placed it on the dashboard as my mom drove away from the little house in the desert that was one of the first stops we made on the long trip we took across the country. When she died a year later I went into my room to look at the bunny clock, but I couldn’t find the key to wind it.
I missed having a grandma that might have been a confidante. A grandma who encouraged me or told me stories about the way things had been or shared traditions with me. She was a vague absence I felt, but I never missed her and the stories I heard about her from my mom were few. My impression of her was that times had been hard. She had done her best given what she had in the unyielding Arizona heat long before central air. A thankless job. Very little money. She was a divorcee with two small children at a time when that would have been a town scandal.
When I was in my thirties, I received a box from my mom. “Just some things that belonged to your grandma,” she said. “I haven’t really gone through it, but it’s yours if you want.”
When I opened the box, I found it was filled with yellowed paper. Poems. Stories. Essays. Scattered thoughts. There were typewritten drafts with handwritten notes and revisions. Multiple versions of the same story. Handwritten notes about ideas. Lines of poetry without homes. Completed, perfectly typed pages of poems. Finished short stories. There were stories that she wrote when she was a young woman in the 1930’s about the Great Depression. About a young girl feeling out of place with the popular kids from school. About a couple taking a wrong turn in the desert and drinking the last of their water. Poems about both World Wars. Personal essays about everything from returning as an adult to her old elementary school, to her thoughts and admiration for John F. Kennedy, to her fears about the Cuban Missile Crisis. And at the bottom of the box was a stack of neatly opened letters to her from a variety of magazine editors and literary agents.
I read everything. I sorted it all out and organized it. I took breaks to cry. To grieve for this woman I hadn’t known. To see how much alike we were, how much we both loved words, how similarly we saw the world. To realize how much richer my life might have been if I’d known her. But mostly to feel immense gratitude for the gift of these treasures.
And then I opened the letters that she had kept so carefully in their original envelopes. One letter, dated July of 1944, was from A.L. Fierst, a literary agent in New York. After making some very specific editing recommendations that he felt would “help elevate the suspense and intensity of the situation,” he wrote, “If you will strengthen it by following these suggestions, or by something similar, I will be glad to see the story again and to see what I can do to sell it for you. I like your writing style and the quality of your mind. I hope you will send me other stories. I am wondering if you have written full-length books. You have the touch and the imagination. And the book market, these days, is booming. …I should be glad to know more about your writing plans.”
I was enthralled. Surely I could track down the magazines her work was in and find a copy of the printed story! I would start with EBay. I’d had no idea that my own grandmother had written stories, let alone stories that were published! I was so proud. She had done what I had wanted, what I had dreamed of, what seemed impossible. I was inspired.
The next time I spoke to my mom, I asked her about the magazines that the stories where published in. Maybe there was even a book! “No,” she told me, “she never published. She didn’t think her work was good enough.”
Apparently, she was dismayed after receiving the request for edits from a few different editors. So dismayed that she refused to change her stories. There were so many edits, she felt, that perhaps they weren’t good enough after all. So the years went by, and her stories stopped. She kept writing poems and a few essays, but the fire had gone out. Not being published was something, I imagine, that she considered to be a failed dream. After thinking about this, I had to smile sadly and shake my head. She was so much like me! Both in love with words. Protective of our art. Too close to our writing, painfully entwined with the stories we want to tell. And stubborn. Our greatest weakness. Our greatest strength.
These days I think of her box of unseen writing when I get rejections. And I think of it when I get comments or requests for changes from editors. Sometimes I disagree with them. But sometimes I can step back far enough and see that their comments are valid. Sometimes I leave the story alone, but am inspired to go in another direction and write something new. Sometimes I get there because they gave me a push. And sometimes it’s better.
I’m still a kid riding in a red VW bus with a bunny clock that my grandma gave me propped up on the dash. It’s ticking loudly and I keep winding it up with a big silver key. I’m writing now. I’m sending out my work. I am revising and sending it again. I don’t want time to run out.
Erin Parker started out as an English major, fell in love with Art History, and ended up in art school studying commercial Interior Design. Erin won her first Creative Writing contest when she was 11, and has been writing ever since. Her work has been published by Uno Kudo, Red Fez, Drunk Monkeys, Cadence Collective, Lost in Thought, Timid Pirate Publishing, The Altar Collective, Santa Fe Lit Review, and Lucid Moose Lit’s anthology Like a Girl: Perspectives on Female Identity. Erin was a finalist in the 2012 NGR Literary Honors contest, was nominated for Best of the Net 2014, and is an editor for Uno Kudo and a flash fiction editor for JMWW.
Erin has work forthcoming in an anthology from Silver Birch Press that marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland. Her first collection of short stories, The Secret and the Sacred, will be released from Unknown Press in the Fall of 2015.
Visit her online at erinkparker.com